Sometimes I treat my students like a roomful of kidnappers. If you are ever kidnapped, you are supposed to “humanize yourself” by talking about your life. Apparently people are less likely to harm you if they’ve come to see you as a person rather than a bargaining chip (Carll 66-67). Although I don’t tell students a lot about my personal life, I have occasionally let slip a few details about myself over the course of teaching. If I piece these details together and try to imagine how my students see me, I encounter fragmented, sometimes even contradictory ideas of myself: Elephants are my favorite animal. One of my greatest fears may be losing the ability to communicate. I can’t have chocolate or caffeine. I enjoy drinking lattés.
The stakes are, of course, higher for the victim of a kidnapping, but I wonder if my minor personal disclosures might at least elevate me above the rank of the faceless teachers in the Peanuts cartoons who go “Wah-wah-waah-waah.” Perhaps when I share a little of my life, part of what I’m saying, whether I’m aware of it or not, is “I have a face,” or more to the point, “I am a person.” But the ramifications of personhood go beyond recognition; it seems implicitly to involve a direct address. For the kidnap victim, “I am a person” implies a desire for the captors to respond to pleas for mercy. In my classroom, it may simply mean “Listen to me.”
Analogously, there seems to be a link between being heard and more public, politically significant recognitions of personhood. So really, perhaps we treat everyone like rooms full of kidnappers. For example, for Hannah Arendt, public speech can establish one’s identity as a person (Human 180). And in Dis-agreement, Jacques Rancière associates the inability to be heard with having “no part in anything” (9).
To illustrate this concept, Rancière tells a story of the Roman plebeians’ secession on Aventine Hill. The plebeians have been reduced to what Rancière calls the part of no part (23), what Arendt might call “rightlessness,” (Origins 295) and what Giorgio Agamben might call “bare life” (188). The patricians have not attempted to communicate with the plebeians because “plebs do not speak” (23). The two sides are so different that communication between them is impossible (24)—what Jean-Francois Lyotard would call a differend, an impassable abyss between two regimes which “threatens ‘the social bond’” (150, no. 217). However, the plebeians demonstrate their personhood as “speaking beings” by “executing speech acts that mimic those of the patricians.” In this way, they prove themselves “capable of enunciating what is just,” as opposed to merely vocalizing pleasure or pain as animals would do (Animals could also be considered a part of no part) (24). They prove their personhood.
According to Rancière, the part of no part comes into being through the invalid logic of consensus democracy. Consensus is grounded in a community’s “identification with itself, with nothing left over” (102-3, emphasis added). But even though a consensus connotes a sense of inclusivity, it functions through exclusion. There is always a part of no part left over; it is simply concealed, denied the representation that coincides with public speech (102-106). Intriguingly, in his oft-cited etymological study, Marcel Mauss writes that the Romans “attributed the property of the simulacra”— the inferior copy that Plato derides—to “persona,” which he characterizes as a term embedded in a sense of the “personal nature of the law” (17).
When an inscription of the part of no part disrupts the status quo, the conflict enters the realm of politics (123). One such disruption is the plebeians’ assertion of personhood through the use of logos (27). Another is the assertion of the May 1968 French demonstrators who proclaimed, “We are all German Jews” (126). Yet despite their disruptive qualities, both models nonetheless seem to gesture toward a form of synthesis, which once effected could easily transform into a new consensus. This appears to function according to Georg Hegel’s process of representation, abstraction, negation, sublation, and synthesis (Para. 455). Once those belonging to the part of no part disrupt the status quo, they enter the plane of representation: the plebeians demonstrate their capacity for speech to represent themselves on equal footing to the “speaking beings.” Upon encountering one another in this way, both sides engage in interpretive abstraction. The French demonstrators symbolically negate their collective identities in order to identify with the German Jews, gesturing toward the final steps of sublation and synthesis.
Although Hegel’s triad is often categorized in terms of thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis, a clearer way of understanding it is through the triad of identity, difference, and identity-in-difference. Overlaid onto Rancière’s schema, we find that the “speaking beings” have a normalized identity, whereas the part of no part is defined by its difference from them. And in terms of its position within this process, difference functions not only as a disruption but also as a failure of identity, which must be corrected through synthesis. As long as identity precedes difference, difference will remain irrecoverable from this secondary position.
The Other remains secondary to what it is Other to, and linking personhood to speech seems to condemn it to a cycle of failure. Can we reimagine forms of the self set free from identity’s kidnapping of personhood? Can we reimagine forms of difference that are not secondary to identity?
- Anne Nagel
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